Health & Wellness

Coach abuse connected to players' willingness to cheat

D. Clarke Evans / Today
Abuse from coaches can trigger players' willingness to cheat, a new study suggests

While coach abuse can derail morals, ethical leadership builds morale.

A study published online this week in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology found that coach abuse can trigger players' willingness to cheat. More than 20,000 athletes completed the NCAA survey in 2010 from more than 600 colleges. Eleven men’s and 13 women’s sports were represented.

The study examined how ethical and verbally abusive behaviors of college coaches are connected to a team’s inclusivity climate and the athletes’ satisfaction with college choice and willingness to cheat. A team’s inclusivity climate can hold longer-term implications for a student-athlete’s well-being and future coaching style and a team's retention.

Men’s teams were notably more willing to cheat than women’s teams, according to the study, and men’s football, basketball and baseball teams reported the highest willingness to cheat at large universities in NCAA Division I.

Other major findings were that Division II teams reported lower college choice satisfaction than Division I teams, with men’s football, basketball, and baseball teams being satisfied the least. For both genders, basketball players were most likely to report abusive coaching behaviors.

Positive leadership by coaches isn't given much media attention compared to negative cases, said lead researcher Mariya Yukhymenko. The study found that ethical leadership was linked to higher rates of college satisfaction and inclusivity.

In 2012, outrage ensued after a video circulated through the media of Mike Rice berating, assaulting and shouting homophobic slurs at players. The incident led to Rice’s ouster as head basketball coach at Rutgers University as well as the forced resignation of the athletic director.

“Our study showed it is really important to stress ethical leadership of coaches. Whether a coach is ethical or not in his coaching style, it actually leads to such important outcomes,” Yukhymenko said.

Phrases like “winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing” perpetuate the idea that aggressive coaching wins, she added.

As for the higher rates of cheating reported in men’s top revenue sports, Yukhymenko said media attention can again play a role. The pressure of coverage and money is on for sports like men’s basketball and football more so than women’s gymnastics or golf.

“There’s external motivation for focus on performance as opposed to mastering skills and being able to perform well without really focusing on whether they’re winning or not,” she said, adding that the coach and team environment likewise set the stage for behavior.

Coaching is in many ways a shaping practice just like parenting or teaching.

“Punishment can be effective. But when it’s effective, it’s important that its done with very high intensity and short duration, and obviously in very ethical and appropriate ways,” said Scott Goldman, the director of clinical and sports psychology for the University of Arizona Athletic Department.

Abuse provokes fear, he said, which can manifest in behaviors like lying, cheating or stealing.

“Coaches that are very aggressive are seeking instant compliance, but what they ultimately get is fear,” Goldman said.

A healthy environment is therefore essential to building up the cohesion that signifies a winning team.

At the University of Arizona, Goldman says coaches place an emphasis on “building a culture” through team-building activities. During the preseason, teammates might go rock climbing, tread through obstacle courses and ultimately set goals. Discussing the identity of the team and the players, he added, can lead to a greater chance of victory.

Goldman likes to evaluate a coach’s leadership quality by listening to their interviews at the end of the season. A throaty snare could say a lot.

If “they even have their voices at the end of the season, they’re saving it and communicating with it in ways that doesn’t come with shouting,” he said.